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For the first time in more than a decade, transit planners are envisioning the day when commuters may board Metro Rail downtown and ride it all the way to the University at Buffalo’s North Campus. Perhaps even beyond.

Naysayers have dubbed the 6.4-mile Metro Rail system the “train to nowhere” because it never realized its full potential.

But the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority next year will spend $1.6 million to determine the best way of enhancing public transit in the fast-growing Amherst area while encouraging regionwide economic development, too.

Though the study may ultimately recommend lesser alternatives, such as dedicated bus lanes or simply more buses, federal officials are, at least preliminarily, supporting the NFTA’s view that public transit can alleviate congestion and pollution.

“There’s so much congestion out there by the big blue water tower [at the Youngmann Highway-Thruway intersection] that the idea is about getting cars off the road,” NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel said, “and that’s a benefit to the community.”

Although the current rail line has had its critics, Minkel noted that the system averages 26,000 boardings per day – the fourth-highest passenger density per mile of any system in the United States.

“And I think that if we extend the rail or have some variation [of enhanced public transit], ridership will only go up,” she said.

The move to consider expansion is a long time coming. Metro Rail’s original plans more than 30 years ago called for a far more extensive system that stretched at least to UB’s Amherst campus. Other branches to Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the Tonawandas and the Southtowns also were envisioned.

But money for that original plan never materialized, and even a more recent study in 2001 found no justification for either extending Metro Rail or upgrading Metro Bus service to Amherst.

Now, however, the NFTA has reason to revisit expansion.

First, it has the money to at least get started. The Federal Transit Administration will pay for 76 percent of the study under a new federal transportation allocation that in Washington parlance has been “awarded but not yet obligated,” though local officials expect no problems in obtaining the money. The state Department of Transportation and the NFTA each would contribute 10 percent, and the remaining 4 percent would come from Erie County.

New surveys also show that Youngmann Highway and Thruway commuters are causing major congestion and pollution problems.

Meanwhile, planners see Metro Rail playing an increasingly important role in feeding workers to downtown development such as the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

“Today, the environmental impact is playing a much larger role,” Minkel said. “There is concern about air emissions, commute time, the economic impact on future development and the livability of a community like ‘walkability.’ So the evaluation today is different from 2001.”

Minkel also said new realities dictate the need for the study. During the last study in 2001, she noted, only scant plans existed for the Medical Campus or the UB 2020 development plan. The same for a new downtown UB Medical School, the Buffalo Sabres’ development on the Webster Block or the Canalside attraction.

“I think the community is ready because so much has changed,” she said.

No potential route has been identified, she said, though the study will identify one. Authority officials noted, however, that while previous efforts studied expansion only to UB, the new project will consider outlying destinations such as the CrossPoint Business Park.

The transportation consulting firm AECOM USA will spend the next two years studying various alternatives and the environmental impact for the NFTA and the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council, the planning agency working with the transit authority. Still, it could be seven to 10 years before any rail or enhanced bus service would begin.

In the meantime, the study will determine if rail will provide the best alternative.

If rail is chosen, the study also would determine the best mode – subway, surface or elevated, according to Thomas George, the NFTA’s director of surface transportation.

While rail probably would prove the most expensive option, he said that it would provide economies of scale by combining with existing Metro Rail and attracting new passengers.

“With rail, you could ride from Amherst to Buffalo on a single seat – without changing,” George said, adding that such a mode might prove most successful. “There are people out there who will ride a train all day but never get on a bus.”

Still, the study may opt for a less complicated option such as bus rapid transit. That could involve dedicated bus lanes, rerouting buses or just increasing frequency.

“It could be anything,” George said, “maybe even streetcars. They’re almost as cost-effective as a bus but have some of the attractiveness of rail.”

Federal transit officials say they have money through the New Starts Program for “meritorious” transportation projects, adding that local governments also must commit their own funds.

“Yes, there is money” for new transit projects,said one federal official who asked not to be identified, “but there is no guarantee for any project.”

All of this plays out against the financial crisis in Washington, as the nation wonders whether vast cuts in federal spending will occur if the government fails to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”

“If sequestration occurs, New Starts funding is projected to be cut by 8.2 percent – that’s $156 million,” said Virginia Miller, spokeswoman for the American Public Transit Association.

Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein said it’s time to revisit the issue of rail service to Amherst.

“Times have changed,” he said. “If there’s been no study in many years, it’s time to do a new study.”

A major impediment to expansion could be operating costs, even if the agency could secure construction funds. The authority threatened massive layoffs and service reductions this spring until Albany produced new state contributions. Minkel said that it is too early to talk about such money matters until the study is completed.

Still, local officials support at least looking at expansion. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, a strong critic of the NFTA’s stewardship of the outer harbor, said he will still champion the NFTA’s transit cause in Washington because new downtown activity will create even stronger demand.

“I think it allows the NFTA to focus on its core mission and rebrand public transit in Buffalo,” Higgins said, noting that bus and rail transportation here was never embraced the way it was in New York City, Boston or Washington.

Minkel insisted that the time is right for a new look at how Metro Bus and Rail serve the community. The system served customers on a record 30 million rides last year, up by 9 percent over the previous two years, as gasoline prices rose.

“Over the past several years, it’s just gone up, up, up,” she said of ridership.

The NFTA needs not only to refocus its attention on the aging infrastructure of its current rail system, but to plan how to best accommodate a changing economy, too.

“We’re committed to this study,” she said. “This is not a commitment to a course of action to go forward. But we have to be prepared.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com